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2019 in review: Coaches say farewell

 

By Adam Turer
D3sports.com

The calendar turned to 2020 and the Division III football landscape looked markedly different.

There are high school students who had never known a world without a purple power reigning atop the D-III world. North Central changed all that. 

There are college students who had only lived during the Kindbom, Swider, George, Leonard, and MacNeill eras. Those coaching legends decided to hang up the whistle in 2020. 

In the midst of writing this story, it was announced that in 2020 there won’t be a Kehres leading Mount Union for the first time since 1985. 

For the first time in a few recruiting cycles, the nation’s best quarterbacks are all graduating. Of course, the trio of Broc Rutter, Jackson Erdmann, and D’Angelo Fulford is the main reason why underclassmen ruled the position in the three seasons prior to 2019. 

Change is not easy, and it takes time. North Central’s breakthrough was a long time coming, and it took the Cardinals getting up off the mat and showing resilience and resolve after some heartbreaking playoff exits in years past. 

With all of the turnover following the 2019 season, 2020 is shaping up to be the most exciting Division III season in recent memory. Several longtime coaching legends will be able to enjoy the season from a distance without the pressure that comes with being on the sideline. 

“The voice has been talking in my head for a couple of years now. I just knew that the timing was right, even during training camp. I told myself this is awesome, I’ve loved every minute of it, this has been a dream job,” said Mike Leonard, who retired after 17 years as Franklin’s head coach. “At a small college, most of the pressure is only what you put on yourself. I know that somebody else can take over and do things differently and probably do things better.” 

Cortland State’s Dan MacNeill decided to step down after 23 years leading his alma mater. Like Leonard, he plans on remaining involved at his school, but in a different capacity. He too felt the tug of retirement pulling on him as he prepared for the 2019 season.

“Retirement is one of those things that starts to percolate over time. Within the last few years, I could kind of see the end getting closer. I want to be able to enjoy retirement from a physical standpoint and wanted to make sure I wasn’t delivering my service in a limited way,” said MacNeill. “Everyone figures it out at their own time. This season as it was unfolding, I had an inkling back in the spring. I kept it to myself because it was not about me; it was always going to be about the team.” 

Like MacNeill, Mike Swider served as the longtime head coach at his alma mater. These men both took the program for which they played to new heights. Both retired as the leader in career victories as head coach of the team for which they once suited up as players. 

“As a player and coach, I’ve spent 39 years of my life at Wheaton and coached both of my sons here. I’ve experienced and seen Wheaton through the lens of a player, a dad, and a coach,” said Swider. “Obviously, I love it like no other.”

When Kindbom’s retirement was announced during the season, it allowed hundreds of alumni to come back and watch their coach in action. Several former Bears traveled to Carroll to see the current Bears send Kindbom out with a victory in Week 11.

“My time, effort, and energy was all put toward this season and my players knew that. I sent former players a note and told them I’d deal with that after the season. I’m pretty close to my players,” said Kindbom. “Our alums are a pretty tight group. It became a reunion for those guys each week. It was fun to reconnect with some alumni I hadn’t seen in years.”

Balancing the pull of retirement with the focus and resolve of daily preparation was a challenge, but one that these men had been preparing for for decades. There was no time to feel reflective or nostalgic when there were important games to plan for each week.

“There’s no question that there’s going to be a number of things that I’m going to miss. The build of a Dragon is something I really relish and am going to miss,” said MacNeill. “I wanted to make sure I had the energy for these guys. I think this year’s team got the best version of me.” 

Despite their retirement, these coaching giants remain close to their programs and are helping with the head coaching transition in whatever capacity they can. Wash U. hired one of Kindbom’s former players. Franklin hired a former student coach under Leonard. They plan to assist their younger successors when called upon, but are also making plans for life after football.

“I want to be a supportive member here at the college, but I’m gonna do some Saturday morning fly fishing, go to some D-1 games,” said Leonard. “In 50 years being a part of football since third grade, never have I looked at a calendar and thought, ‘What do I want to do this weekend?’”

Kindbom wants to write a book and start a leadership academy. MacNeill wants to continue teaching in Cortland’s coaching program. They won’t be the face of their program anymore, but will still be a force behind the scenes, raising funds and leveraging their vast network of alumni. 

These men witnessed their programs grow, but also witnessed Division III football inch its way into the national consciousness. There is still a long way to go, but the advent of this website in 1999 changed the game significantly. Other college football websites more readily acknowledge the division, and ESPN has been a Stagg Bowl partner for decades now.

“It’s been fun to watch the way that people view Division III football,” said Kindbom. “There are kids all over the country now who care about the stories of North Central, Mount Union, Mary Hardin-Baylor, Wisconsin-Whitewater. Kids all over the country can tell you their names now.” 

Now that they have had a month or two to soak in retirement, there have been moments of reflection. Those moments are filled with gratitude, and have very little to do with any on-field results.

“This was an incredible run of fun and I couldn’t have done it without my wife, Susan. It’s just mind boggling and humbling. There’s nothing more important in life than the relationships that we have with each other while we’re here,” said Leonard. “If you can make an impact on somebody’s life, it’s amazing the amount of influence you have, but it’s a two-way street. I think coaches do a great job of teaching life lessons to athletes, but at the same time I’ve learned some great lessons from these athletes. Wins and championships are just icing on the cake, but most people don’t remember those records 25 years down the road. Relationships are what it’s all about.” 

These men dedicated their life to impacting young men and preparing them for life after football. The rewards were in the process, in building those relationships, in recruiting boys to take a chance on a program, then watching those same kids come back to cheer on their alma mater years later as successful men. 

“I love everything that I did. My top priority is still the kids. I still care about the kids and love them,” said Kindbom. “I believe that a strength of success is in persistence and determination. When you have people in positions like mine who are learning every day from your players and your institution, that makes you a richer person and hopefully a richer coach. I was along for the ride. I had the ability to be here and be around the atmosphere and learning environment and type of kids here at Wash. U, and it was pretty awesome.” 

Division III won’t be the same without these familiar faces leading perennially successful programs. Each have planted their own coaching tree, which will ensure their legacy lives on. They combined to win hundreds of games and dozens of conference championships, but will be celebrated most for the culture they created.

All of Division III football — past, present, and future — should be grateful for the contributions these men made to improve the sport. 

What did we know? Did we know things? Let’s find out!

Every year in Kickoff, our panel makes predictions for the upcoming season. Pat Coleman, Keith McMillan, Ryan Tipps, Frank Rossi, Greg Thomas, and I each made our best educated guesses on how the 2019 season would play out. Now, I get to look back on our prognostications and let the rest of the D-III world know how much (or little) we knew back in August.

Which will be the last team chosen in Pool C, and what will its record be?

Points to Adam for nailing Whitworth at 8-1. Although, as we have surmised, the last team chosen in Pool C was likely your national champion North Central Cardinals.

Which team will be the most surprising playoff entry? 

Points to Frank for SUNY-Maritime and Adam for Chapman.

Which team that didn't make the 2018 playoffs will go furthest in 2019?

Three of us picked St. Thomas, which fell short of the postseason once again. Three others correctly predicted playoff teams, but only Central (Ryan) and Wesley (Pat) won their first round games.

Will a non-purple team play in the Stagg Bowl?

Only Pat had the foresight to correctly predict a non-purple power would play in Shenandoah.

Who will reach the national semifinals?

But, Pat thought that team would be St. John’s. This was by far our worst year for predicting the final four, as nobody got more than one correct. Adam had Muhlenberg and Ryan had North Central, while everyone else had UW-Whitewater. 

Who will win the national title?

We got this one wrong, and weren’t really even close.

Which 2018 playoff team will have the worst fall-off, record-wise?

Trine went 5-5. RPI finished 6-5. Both won 10 games in 2018. Points to Greg and Ryan.

Which team will have the best improvement over its 2018 record?

Hendrix improved from 2-8 to 7-3. Huntingdon improved from 4-5 to 8-4, including a playoff win. A point to Greg and half a point to Adam. 

Who will be the D3football.com offensive & defensive players of the year?

Points to Ryan for predicting Broc Rutter. Kudos to all of us for predicting eventual All-Americans in all but one spot.

Which of these quarterbacks will throw for the most yards in 2019: Joe Germinerio, Jason Hellwig, Wahid Nabi?

Greg predicted that Germinerio would thrive in a revamped Ithaca offense, and he was right. 

Which quarterback will lead Division III in passing yards per game?

Jackson Erdmann, at 360 per. Ryan got this one right and surprisingly none of the other QBs predicted finished in the top five. 

Who will win the NACC?

Adam, Keith, and Pat had a good feeling about Don Beebe’s first season leading Aurora. They were proved prescient. 

How much will St. Thomas beat St. Olaf, Hamline, Carleton and Augsburg by?

The under won in this case, as the total was 161. Our closest guess was 180, by Frank.

How many Centennial Conference teams finish with eight or more wins?

Muhlenberg, Susquehanna, and Johns Hopkins each finished with eight or more wins. Greg, Ryan, and Keith got this one right.

Rank the teams entering new conferences in order by their conference finish.

We all underestimated Southern Virginia’s ODAC debut. The Knights won two conference games and finished 4-6 overall, but are on the move again. Southern Virginia’s stint in the ODAC will be brief, as the Knights are headed to the USA South in 2021.

Which conference will have more teams win playoff games, the OAC or MIAC?

Well, we all correctly predicted the MIAC would win the most playoff games, but both conferences surprisingly only had one team participating in the tournament. 

What will be the most surprising upset of the season?

Nobody called this one, but Keith came close, as Wesley needed to score 14 unanswered fourth quarter points, including the game-winning field goal with two seconds left, to survive Endicott’s upset bid. 

Offseason?! What offseason?

The coaching carousel continues to turn, with recent hires that could set up the next decade of Division III football. 

Mount Union quickly named Geoff Dartt as the heir to the Kehres legacy. More big decisions loom, as Wheaton still must hire Swider’s successor.

We will continue to update the coaching moves and introduce you to coaches new and old with in-depth interviews in the monthly Around the Nation podcast. 

St. John’s offensive lineman Ben Bartch is working hard to become the next D-III player to be drafted by the NFL. He and others, such as Berry wide receiver Mason Kinsey, will surely get a shot this spring at least in a training camp. The XFL returns in 2020 with several D-III alums spread across the league’s rosters. 

Finally, a huge thank you to all of the players, coaches, and sports information directors who contribute so much to this site each year. The 2019 season was full of exciting storylines, and 2020 is shaping up to be even more fun. Thanks for reading and enjoy 2020!

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Columnist

Adam Turer

Adam Turer graduated in 2006 from Washington and Lee University, where he was a two-year starter at free safety. He lives in Cincinnati and covers area high school sports in addition to his full-time job as an attorney. Adam has contributed to D3football.com since 2007 and is in his third season writing Around the Nation after spending four seasons writing Around the Mid-Atlantic.

2014-2015 columnist: Ryan Tipps.
2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.

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